Montana commission advances tentative state House district map, seeks public comment
HELENA (KPAX) - Following four days of work sessions, the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission has advanced a tentative map for Montana’s new state House districts, but strong disagreements remain between Democrats and Republicans, and a lot of discussion is still to come.
On Thursday, Republican and Democratic commissioners each offered new proposed maps, in hopes of getting closer to a consensus. While their plans had much more in common than earlier ideas, both sides said they didn’t believe they could get any closer together that day.
In the end, Maylinn Smith, the commission’s nonpartisan chair, voted to advance the Democratic proposal for public comment — but she said it’s a long way from final adoption.
“I think I’ve heard a lot from you guys as to what you think the problems are with the map and what’s good with the map; I need to have comment from the public to figure out what that is,” Smith said.
You can find links to a full-scale interactive map and several statistical breakdowns on the tentative proposal on the commission’s website.
The Republican and Democratic maps were particularly similar in places like Butte and Anaconda, Whitefish, Ravalli County, and tribal areas. They differed much more in the shape of large rural districts and in how they divided several urban areas – particularly Missoula, Bozeman and Helena.
During the process, Republican commissioners Jeff Essmann and Dan Stusek had said they wanted the map to include more compact districts, and they objected to designs that split urban voters into multiple districts with neighboring suburban and rural areas.
Democrats Kendra Miller and Denise Juneau had talked about the goal of a “fair map” that would create roughly 57 Republican-leaning and 43 Democratic-leaning House districts, to match the statewide average partisan vote in ten recent elections the commission analyzed.
When commissioners presented their new proposals on Thursday morning, both sides said they made substantial compromises.
Republicans said they created districts that were less compact and less competitive in order to provide more solid Democratic seats. Democrats said they had improved their map’s compactness and split fewer counties, but moved farther away from a strictly proportional party breakdown.
According to the commission’s competitiveness analysis, as calculated by Miller, the new GOP proposal included 59 Republican districts, 34 Democratic districts and 7 competitive districts — all of which lean toward the GOP.
The Democratic map included 55 Republican seats, 35 Democratic seats and 10 competitive districts — with five leaning slightly Republican and five slightly Democratic.
Miller said Thursday that, based that same metric, the current House map has 68 Republican-leaning seats, 31 Democratic-leaning seats and one true toss-up – and in the 2022 elections, only one district voted for a candidate not from the party it leans toward.
After lengthy discussions in the afternoon, commissioners said they didn’t believe they could make further progress toward consensus Thursday.
Republicans objected to several districts on the Democratic map that they said grouped rural areas with urban areas they didn’t have strong connections with — particularly one that combined parts of Sanders and Lake counties with part of the Rattlesnake neighborhood in Missoula. They also criticized how the Democrats divided urban areas like Missoula and Bozeman.
“Your map doesn’t have one Republican seat in Missoula County, or even the possibility of a competitive Senate seat,” said Essmann.
The proposal does include part of western Missoula County in a Republican district shared with Mineral County, but no Republican-leaning districts solely in the county.
Democratic commissioners said it didn’t make sense to talk about excluding parties from representation at the county level without looking at statewide representation, and said they had come closer to the GOP on many technical metrics, and further changes to the map would only be advantaging one party.
“If we had made the map more compact and flipped some seats red, then you’d be on board, but if we make the map more compact and it’s still fair, then that’s a hang-up and a problem for you,” Miller said.
Smith said she decided to move forward with the Democratic map because it did a better job of meeting the commission’s criteria – though Republicans countered that their departures from criteria like compactness were because they were trying to address Democratic commissioners’ priorities.
Though Smith had to break a tie here, she said she remains optimistic the commission can work toward agreement on a final map.
“My goal here is still to work toward consensus for that final map, because that is what I believe is best for Montana,” she said.
The public will have a chance to comment on the tentative map in person at the State Capitol and online during a hearing Saturday, Dec. 10. You can also continue to provide written public comment on the commission’s website.